‘What to the Slave is Your Fourth of July?’

The Underground Railroad Education Center’s annual July 4th Oration, commemorating Frederick Douglass’s address “What to the Slave is Your Fourth of July?” will be presented virtually for the first time this year.

Featured speakers for the event will be Gretchen Sorin, author of “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” and Jonathan Jones, Commissioner of Recreation, Youth and Workforce Services for the City of Albany.

The annual oration is a signature event of the center, formerly known as Underground Railroad History Project. Using the 1852 address by Douglass as a framework, the oration examines issues of liberty, citizenship, civic engagement, and social responsibility from the historical perspective in light of contemporary injustice.

“Today, the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on longstanding inequities among Americans in health conditions and economic security,” said Education Center co-founder Paul Stewart in a release announcing the event. “Recent events in Minneapolis, Louisville, and elsewhere are generating renewed outrage over injustice in police treatment of minority communities. Amidst these twin crises, Frederick Douglass’s address rings out from history, reminding us we must learn from the past to create the future all Americans deserve.”

The oration event will include the reading by Jones of excerpts from Douglass’s historic address. Since his appointment as commissioner in 2014, Jones has initiated programs to provide educational, athletic, and social activities for Albany residents, particularly urban youth.

A Syracuse native, he received a master’s degree in educational administration from the University at Albany. He is active in the Arbor Hill community, where he and his family make their home, and serves on the board of the Albany Community Action Partnership.

Sorin is Director and Distinguished Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York. “Driving While Black,” published in February, is the basis for a documentary directed by Ric Burns and slated for broadcast on PBS.

Sorin’s writings also include “In The Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” and “Touring Historic Harlem: Four Walks in Northern Manhattan.”

The Underground Railroad Education Center is a not-for-profit permanently chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York. The center is based at The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence on Livingston Avenue in Albany, a headquarters for Underground Railroad activity in the Capital Region in the mid-1850s.


The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.